Book Review Number 37

Why We’re Polarized – Ezra Klein

Author Klein is editor-at-large and cofounder of VOX, the “explanatory” news organization. For those not familiar with that term, it means current news stories presented within their broader context. Klein uses that contextual approach to explain why we as a nation are so politically polarized and what we might do to mitigate it.

The first half of the book tells the story of how and why American politics polarized around identity in the twentieth century and what that polarization did to the political process. The second half is about the feedback loops that continue driving our political system toward destruction.

Mr. Klein describes the middle of the twentieth century as a time when the two parties were not identifiable as liberal and conservative but simply Democrats and Republicans. He shows that many Democrats at that time were much more conservative when it came to national governance than Republicans generally, and similarly that there were many Republicans more liberal than Democrats generally as well. That made compromise possible. The editorials at the time complained that there was simply no difference in the parties.

As the author explains, that all changed in the middle ‘60s, first with the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater for president by the Republicans; he declared he would, and then did, run a strongly ideological campaign focused on conservative principles. That was followed after Johnson won re-election with civil rights legislation initiated by a Democratic President; those two events forever created an ideological divide between the parties. Once conservative and liberal identities were established in the parties the two have been moving ever further apart ideologically since.

The author does a good job of describing how these political identities have polarized how we see the world in general as well as each other. He traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system of governance toward crisis. In the last chapter of the book he offers some suggestions about how we might mitigate the damage and change the trajectory of this politicly destructive path, like:  doing away with the Electoral College; establishing ranked choice voting for members of Congress; ending the Senate filibuster rule; giving Washington DC and Puerto Rico representation in Congress; reforming the Supreme Court to eliminate political bias.

I strongly recommend the book for anyone who wants a better understanding of how we got to where we are. The optimist in me wants to believe that our younger generations will be wiser and more willing to compromise for rational national governance and the economic prosperity of our republic. Sadly though, my realist side came away wondering if we as a nation have the will to do what it takes to save our democracy.

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